Egyptian parliament selects constitution panel

Members of Egypt's Parliament attend a session in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 24, 2012. Egyptian parliamentarians on Saturday cast ballots to select a 100-member panel that will draft the country's new constitution, amid deep polarization between liberals and Islamists over the process. AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa

(AP) CAIRO - Egypt's Islamists looked poised Saturday to gain control of a key lever of power that will help steer the country's political future as parliament selected a panel to draw up the country's new constitution. Liberal lawmakers denounced the process as a "farce" and walked out in protest.

The constitution, which will be written by the 100-member committee, will determine the balance of power between Egypt's previously all-powerful president and parliament, and define the country's future identity, including the role of religion and minority rights. With so much at stake, the question of who should sit on the panel has sparked fierce debate in Egypt.

Many secular and liberal Egyptians fear that the Islamist parties that dominate parliament will pack the panel with their supporters and ignore minority concerns. Those fears have spiked over the past week after parliament decided to allocate half of the panel's seats to its own members, and a leading Islamist deputy said the country's most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, would likely not be included.

With vote-counting still going on late Saturday night, Egypt's state-run MENA news agency posted a list of names of those it said were gaining support among lawmakers.

The list included more than 50 Islamists, as well as six women and six Christians in addition to some 30 non-Islamists, including professionals, judges, political scientists, poets, and others. Some of the names were not widely known to the public and their ideological affiliation was not immediately clear.

During the heated joint session of parliament to pick the panel, lawmakers from the liberal Egyptian Bloc, which holds 9 percent of the lower house's seats, walked out of the proceedings en masse, accusing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's most powerful political group — of trying to dominate the selection.

Egyptian Bloc lawmaker Emad Gad called the session a "farce" and said the Islamist parties "have already decided on the names and voting is only meant to lend legitimacy to the process."

"Islamists will write the constitution as they wish but I believe this will lead to many crises," he said.

Saad Emara, a Muslim Brotherhood lawmaker, accused liberals of "making a fuss," and said millions of Egyptian voters elected Islamist lawmakers so that their views would be represented on the constitutional committee.

Egypt's ruling military council last year issued an interim constitution that gives elected members of the parliament's two houses the right to select those who will draft the new constitution. The old 1971 constitution was suspended after the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The new constitution will be put to a vote in a national referendum. However, the ruling military council left the guidelines for the process vague enough to spark a sharp debate over who should be on the panel.

Egypt's Islamist groups, including both the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, make up nearly three-quarters of parliament after sweeping the vote in the first post-revolution elections that began in November.

They passed a vote last week to appoint 50 of the panel members from among lawmakers in parliament, while the rest will be drawn from broader society.

Liberals, among whom are youth groups and secular parties that led the uprising but performed poorly in elections, say that a permanent constitution should not be written solely by the victors of a single election.

They argue that the constitutional process should include a wide range of members from the country's different ideological currents, professional syndicates and unions, women, and members of the Christian minority. They say that parliament's decision to have its members dominate the process violates earlier Brotherhood pledges to draft the charter by "consensus" and fear it represents a capitulation to the hardline Salafis.

As the Brotherhood squares off with the liberals and secularists in parliament, it's also engaged in a standoff with the ruling military council.

The 83-year-old Brotherhood, which was officially banned under Mubarak, said in a statement Saturday that it has received threats from the military-backed government that it could move to have parliament dissolved in response to the Brotherhood's pressing the army to sack the current Cabinet.

Brotherhood deputy leader Rashad Bayoumi said Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri threatened to use a court ruling to dissolve parliament. Bayoumi declined to say when the threat was made.

The new constitution is expected to curb presidential powers and give parliament more authority, a drastic change to Egypt's political system.

Another key concern is the role of Islamic Shariah law, which is subject to a wide variety of interpretation.

The old constitution says Shariah is the "main source of legislation," but many in the hardline Salafi bloc that makes up nearly a quarter of parliament's members take a literalist and uncompromising stance on Shariah and want it strictly enforced.

Another divisive issue is the role of the military and the future of the country's military rulers. The ruling generals want assurances they won't lose their political clout and that parliament will have no say over the military's budget.

Parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, promised this month that the new constitution should not be written by "the majority," but instead by "consensus and partnership."

That pledge however has been called into question by the exclusion of ElBaradei, whom Brotherhood parliamentarian Mohammed el-Beltagi said on his Facebook page Friday would normally be included "only if he didn't oppose the current road map" for drafting the document.

ElBaradei had criticized the parliament — the product of the first open elections after decades of dictatorship — as not fully representative, and the process of drafting the constitution as rushed.

With drums and chants, youth activists rallied outside parliament against Islamists and the military for what they see as sabotaging the revolution.

"No Salafis, no Brotherhood. The constitution is for all Egyptians," they chanted.

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